Welcome to the PhD program!

The PhD program offers professional training in the interdisciplinary study of American history, culture, and society. In addition to a broad understanding of American Studies as an academic field, students gain expertise in their chosen fields of specialization that prepares them for careers in academia, public humanities, and other related professions. The interdisciplinary nature of the program allows freedom and flexibility to tailor the course of study to students’ own interests and goals while also grounding them in the field of American Studies.


The PhD program consists of coursework, Qualifying and Comprehensive Exams, and a book length dissertation. All PhD students are required to complete three core courses in the department: AMST 600, AMST 601, and AMST 603. Students are strongly encouraged to enroll in AMST 600 and 601 in their first year of study, and AMST 603 in the spring of their second or third year.  

The core sequence serves two purposes:

  • Introduces students to American Studies as a stand-alone field, as well as the varied perspectives that have shaped its development.
  • Provides students an advanced and shared overview of the history of American society and culture.

The first-year courses foster a sense of community within each cohort of incoming students, while AMST 603 provides students with research experience and the opportunity to draft dissertation proposals. For more information on each course, see the Course Descriptions.

American Studies Graduate Seminars and Electives

Doctoral students have a great deal of freedom in developing a program of study. They can select graduate electives both from the department and from other departments across campus, a distinguishing feature of the American Studies program. In conceiving an academic plan, students should consult with their departmental advisor and the Graduate Chair, as well as their peers, keeping in mind their own interests and research objectives. All courses outside the department must be approved by the Graduate Chair who assesses whether they fit logically within the student’s overall doctoral study plan.

 As doctoral students prepare for their Qualifying Exams, they may undertake a course of Independent Reading and Research (AMST 650) with field advisors.

The MA-en-route

Some students enter the doctoral program with an MA in American Studies or a related field; others enter with only a bachelor’s degree, or an MA in a different discipline. For the latter, we recommend that they earn an “MA-en-route” to the PhD, as having an MA will provide a wider range of funding options. A student can request that the Graduate Chair petition the Graduate Division for an MA degree upon completion of the doctoral Qualifying Exams. Or, should a student want an “MA-en-route” prior to taking the Qualifying Exams, she can take the MA Plan B exams any time after completing ten courses (30 credits).

Degree Completion

The American Studies Department expects students to complete the PhD degree within six years and no more than seven years, passing the qualifying exam no later than the end of their fourth year and the comprehensive exam no later than the end of their fifth year. For more information on timeline policies, see Coursework Guidelines and Qualifying Exams below.

Maintaining Enrollment

PhD students who have completed their required coursework but have not yet completed their Comprehensive Exam can maintain student status by enrolling for ONE credit of AMST 699 on a CR/NC basis with the Graduate Chair. Upon passing the Comprehensive Exam and advancing to ABD status, students maintain student status by enrolling for ONE credit of AMST 800 on a CR/NC basis with their dissertation committee chair.

Guidelines and Restrictions

  • U.S. State Department regulations for international students may require students to register for at least EIGHT credits in order to maintain full-time student status for their visas. For more information, contact International Student Services.
  • Student employment may require students to register for at least FOUR credits in order to maintain part-time status and employment eligibility.
  • Graduate assistants must be registered for at least six credits to maintain full-time status.

Curriculum Map

Courses & Research Requirements


Required courses
AMST 600, AMST 601, AMST 603 (9 credits)

4 or more AMST graduate seminars (12 credits)
5 or fewer allied courses (up to 15 credits), which may include one 400-level class.
AMST 650 (Up to 9 credits)

Total Credits
15 classes, 45 credits


Qualifying Exams
One general and two specialized fields

Comprehensive Exam
Dissertation proposal defense

Book-length monograph based on original research that makes a substantive contribution to scholarship

Recommended Timeline

First Year

Fall: AMST 600 & 1-2 AMST or electives (6-9 credits)
Spring: AMST 601 & 1-2 AMST or electives (6-9 credits)

Second Year

Fall: 2-3 AMST or electives (6-9 credits)
Spring: AMST 603 & 1-2 AMST or electives (6-9 credits)

Third Year

Fall: AMST 650 (Exam Prep) and/or electives as needed (6-9 credits as needed)
Spring: AMST 650 (Exam Prep) and/or electives (6-9 credits as needed)
Qualifying Exams if fieldwork is completed

Fourth Year
Fall: AMST 650 (Exam Prep) and/or other elective (as needed)
Qualifying Exams
Spring: AMST 699 (C/NC) (students preparing for Comprehensive Exam)
Comprehensive Exam

Fifth Year
Fall: AMST 800/Dissertation research and writing (1 credit)
Spring: AMST 800/Dissertation research and writing (1 credit)

Sixth Year
Fall: AMST 800/Dissertation research and writing (1 credit)
Spring: AMST 800/Dissertation completion (1 credit)

Note: Students with multi-year Graduate Assistantships may progress at a somewhat slower pace through the program, taking 6 credits rather than 9 credits in some semesters. Other students may advance more quickly.  All students must complete the degree within the university’s seven year time limit.

Students with Graduate Assistantships are required to take a minimum of 6 credits per semester to maintain full-time status.  Other students are required to take a minimum of 8 credits per semester to maintain full-time status.

Coursework Guidelines

PhD degrees should be completed within six years (or twelve full-time semesters of study). Under current Graduate Division policies, delayed students will be placed on an automatic one-year probation after their seventh year in the program and terminated after their eighth year. Under exceptional circumstances and with the support of their Dissertation Chair and the Graduate Chair, students may petition the Graduate Division for additional time beyond their eighth year but approval of such petitions is in no way guaranteed.

PhD Coursework Guidelines

  • Doctoral students can apply ONE 400-level undergraduate course to their electives credit (3 credits). The 400-level course must be approved by the Graduate Chair.
  • All outside electives have to be approved by the Graduate Chair.
  • All graduate students must maintain a minimum G.P.A of 3.5.
  •  Only courses in which the student attains a B- or better can count toward an AMST graduate degree.
  • No more than 3 courses taken as an unclassified student may count toward a graduate degree in American studies.
  • Only courses taken for a grade will be counted toward a graduate degree.
  • If a student has completed her coursework but has not yet achieved ABD status by passing her Comprehensive Exam, she can maintain registration status by enrolling for ONE credit of AMST 699 on a CR/NC basis with the graduate chair. Note that financial aid, student employment, and U.S. State Department regulations could require some students to enroll for additional credits in order to maintain registration status. See Maintaining Enrollment Status.
  • Students must in addition comply with all rules and regulations of the Graduate Division.

PhD Course Waivers

Students who have completed graduate courses at another research university in American Studies or a related field can appeal to the Graduate Chair to waive coursework requirements at UHM. In such cases, students will have to provide evidence (e.g. syllabi) of the course’s rigor and its compatibility with American Studies. Students also must demonstrate (e.g., with grades or written work) that they performed well in any course that is to be applied to the doctorate in American Studies.

In general, no more than nine outside credits (three graduate courses) will be waived for doctoral students without an MA degree. If a student enters the doctoral program with an MA in American Studies or a closely related field, the Graduate Chair may consider waiving additional course requirements. However, in no circumstances may students waive any of the required core courses, AMST 600, AMST 601, and AMST 603.


Qualifying Exams

The Qualifying Examinations constitute a critical stage in a PhD student’s development as a scholar. Exams consist of three written parts, followed by a two hour oral exam. The written parts include two critical literature reviews in fields of the student’s choice, as well as a mock syllabus for a year-long graduate course in American Studies. The oral exam is held upon successful completion of the written parts. The exams are designed to assist the student in developing scholarly competence in two fields of specialization and in the general field of American Studies. Exams also lay the groundwork for dissertation research. To assist in preparation of the literature reviews and generals exam, students may enroll in AMST 650 up to three times, once with each field advisor. During this period, students should expect to do multiple revisions of their exams at the direction of their advisors. Full-time students should complete their qualifying exams in the third or fourth year of study. If a student does not pass their qualifying exams by the end of their fourth year, they will be placed on an automatic one-year departmental probation. Any student who has not passed their qualifying exam by the end of their fifth year will be recommended to the Graduate Division for termination in the program. Under exceptional circumstances, students may petition for a one-semester extension to this timeline.

Part I: Preparation and Approval of Fields

Preparation of General Field

Each student will work closely with a faculty advisor (called the Generals Advisor) to produce a mock syllabus for a year-long graduate survey course that delineates the student’s vision of American Studies.

  • The syllabus will be based on 40-50 books and articles, selected under the guidance of the Generals Advisor and approved by the Graduate Chair.
  • Each week on the syllabus should include both required and recommended readings.
  • The syllabus must specify the framing questions and the logic that underlies the conceptualization of the course. Sections and subsections of the syllabus should each be preceded by guiding questions and explanatory text.
  • The student should be prepared in the oral exam to provide the rationale for the conceptualization of the syllabus and for the selection of texts.
  • The syllabus should address major themes, events, problems, and concepts of American culture and society.
  • The texts must represent the full chronological arc of American history from precontact to the present, as well as the interdisciplinary breadth and transnational dimensions of American Studies.
  • This model is designed to help students organize a large number of readings thematically and chronologically. As a mock syllabus, the end product need not include precise segmentation by date, page numbers, assignments, etc.

Steps to Success

  • Present the “generals” field adviser with a syllabus proposal: a preliminary reading list plus introductory essay (two double-spaced pages) that lays out the main themes, questions, and objectives of the year-long graduate course.
  • After receiving approval of the list, read all the books, meet regularly with the Generals Advisor, and fulfill the writing requirements prescribed by the Generals Advisor.
  • Prepare the final version of the syllabus and deliver it to your Generals Advisor.
  • Deliver the final version to the graduate chair and to committee members at least one week prior to the start of the oral examination.

Preparation of Specialized Fields

Students choose two additional fields of study related to American Studies for their areas of specialization. Each field will comprise 40-50 books and articles. At least one of the fields should help the student prepare for her dissertation research. The student should define the scope of her chosen fields by working closely with one professor for each field. The scope of a field should be narrow enough to allow the student to master the principal scholarly literature in the topic area and broad enough to define an undergraduate course. Examples include: Indigenous Studies, U.S. Women’s History, Sexuality Studies, Asian American Studies, Popular Culture, Mass Media, African American Literature, Critical and Cultural Theory, American Environmental History, etc.

Steps to Success

  • Prepare the preliminary reading lists of 40-50 books and articles in consultation with the field advisors. Consult with each field advisor for advice on the scope and content of the reading list.  Each field list also must be approved by the Graduate Chair.
  • Read all books on the list, meeting regularly with field advisor, while fulfilling the advisor’s writing requirements for field preparation;
  • Draft and revise the critical literature review;
  • After approval of the final draft by the field advisor, deliver a copy to the Graduate Chair, Graduate Coordinator, and to all committee members at least two weeks prior to the oral examination.

AMST 650

AMST 650 is designed to reinforce and deepen content knowledge in the general field of American Studies and in specialized subfields within American Studies. By the time that Ph.D. students in American Studies begin their dissertations, students are expected to have engaged at a sophisticated level with the major themes, problems, and interdisciplinary methods of the field of American Studies, and to have developed specializations in two subfields that will serve as their professional teaching and research fields. This course, which is offered each semester with variable content, is designed to provide students with a defined pathway toward field mastery.

Advanced Ph.D. students may register for this course, with different content, up to three times (up to 9 credits)—each with a separate field adviser. AMST 650 counts toward the 45-credits required for the Ph.D.

Registration for AMST 650 requires signatures from both the field adviser and the Graduate Chair. To register for an AMST 650, students must first compile a preliminary draft of the booklist for the field and then fill out a form with their field adviser, identifying the reading and writing requirements for the course. The form and booklist draft must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator  in order to acquire the appropriate CRN

Fields & Syllabus Approval
When the student has successfully prepared preliminary booklists for all three fields and has read through much of the material, she should contact the Graduate Chair to review and formally approve the booklists, as signified by completion of the QUALIFYING EXAM APPROVAL FORM.

Part II: Writing a Critical Literature Review

To complete this component of the qualifying exam, the student will write two literature reviews of approximately 20 pages each. One faculty field adviser will supervise each review, which may be written in whole or in part in AMST 650, or independently. A critical review does not merely summarize texts; it traces the emergence and transformation of an area of inquiry and its intellectual genealogies, assesses contributions and methods of various scholars; and identifies areas of future research. The reviews must be clearly written, analytically sophisticated, organizationally cohesive, and carefully edited. They must be handed in no later than four weeks before the semester’s end. 

The Advisor supervising each field determines whether the student has successfully passed the literature reviews. The Generals Advisor determines whether the student has passed the general exams (or “syllabus”). The Generals Advisor also serves as Chair of the Qualifying Exam committee.

Part III: The Oral Exam

Upon the student’s successful completion of the literature reviews, field advisors will send the final drafts to the Generals Advisor, who will communicate results to the Graduate Chair. The Graduate Coordinator will then schedule the Oral defense.

Oral exams are two hours long and cover all three fields. Each of the three field advisors will have approximately thirty minutes to ask questions. Students may be asked to clarify or elaborate on their literature reviews and syllabus, and/or asked to discuss other theories, methods, and arguments covered by books in the reading lists.

After the exam, the committee meets privately to assess the student’s performance and assign a grade of “Fail,” “Low Pass,” “Pass,” or “Pass with Distinction.”

A student who fails the Oral Examination on the first attempt can try once more, either by two weeks after the original oral exam or before the end of the semester, whichever comes first.

Comprehensive Exam & Dissertation Proposal

The Comprehensive Exam is a two-hour discussion of the dissertation proposal with the dissertation committee. The purpose of the exam is to evaluate the rigor and significance of the proposed research and the student’s preparedness for undertaking the project.

Each student must first assemble a dissertation committee and then write a dissertation proposal under the guidance of her dissertation chair. A strong dissertation proposal is critical to successful completion of the dissertation, as it becomes the road map for the research, writing and grant proposals in the coming years. A solid proposal requires multiple revisions, and students should work closely with the committee in the course of producing the proposal.

We recommend that students take the Comprehensive Examination in the semester following completion of the Qualifying Examination.

The Dissertation Committee

The dissertation committee consists of five faculty members, including at least three faculty members from American Studies and one outside member.

Please note:

  • The committee chair must be a full graduate faculty in American Studies.
  • One outside member (known as the university representative) must be a full graduate faculty in another department in UHM.
  • In certain circumstances and with the approval of the Graduate Chair, the committee may include a faculty member at another university.
  • Consult with the Graduate Chair as well as the committee chair to ensure the range of expertise and support necessary for the student’s particular dissertation project.
The Dissertation Proposal

The content and format for the dissertation proposal vary depending on the nature of the project, but all proposals must include:

  1. project overview, describing the topic, research questions, potential arguments, and significance;
  2. sources and methods, identifying the key primary sources and describing the methods to be used for analysis;
  3. literature review, summarizing the findings and arguments made by other scholars and writers on relevant issues and discussing what the dissertation would add to existing scholarship;
  4. chapter outline, summarizing research questions and preliminary arguments for each chapter.
  5. a bibliography listing both primary and secondary sources.

While there is no minimum or maximum length for the proposal, typically a solid proposal is no less than 15 double-spaced pages, excluding the bibliography.  Samples of successful dissertation proposals are available for review on our website by registered students.

The Exam

After approval by the committee and the Graduate Chair, the student may schedule the comprehensive exam. During the two-hour oral exam, the student may first make a brief oral statement about the proposed research. The committee members will then ask questions and make suggestions about the proposal, and the student is expected to defend her project.

Upon successful completion of the Comprehensive Examination, students earn ABD (All-But-Dissertation) status and proceed to dissertation research and writing. The Graduate Division rules state that any student who fails the Comprehensive Examination twice will be dropped from the PhD program.


The dissertation is a book-length work of original scholarship on some aspect of American society and culture. The dissertation not only serves as the culmination of the one’s graduate work but also defines one’s scholarly and professional identity.

A typical dissertation in American Studies is 50,000 – 75,000 words.

The Process

Ideally students complete the dissertation by their sixth year of study, but students should be aware that it may take three or more years. It is strongly recommended that students apply for external fellowships and grants that will not only provide necessary funding but also strengthen one’s academic profile.

Dissertation research and writing is generally a solitary process that requires extended periods in the archives or in the field as well as at one’s desk. However, students should maintain regular contact with their committee members, especially their chair, and receive ample feedback along the way. Students should expect to revise chapters multiple times in response to the committee’s guidance. A full draft of the dissertation must be provided to the committee by the first day of the semester in which the candidate hopes to defend the dissertation.

When the entire committee has read the manuscript and approved it for defense, the student may schedule the oral defense in consultation with the Graduate Coordinator. The defense is a public event and must be announced in the UH events calendar at least two weeks in advance. In cases where any of the committee members is out of town on the scheduled defense date, the member may participate in the defense remotely, following procedures set up by the Graduate Division.

In the semester of the dissertation defense, students must register for AMST 800. They must also submit a petition and graduation fee to the Graduate Division several months prior to graduation. The Graduate Division requires submission of the completed dissertation well before the end of the semester. It is thus essential check the Graduate Division calendar and plan accordingly.

The Defense

During the two-hour defense with the dissertation committee, the student will make a brief statement about the dissertation. The committee members will then ask questions and make comments on the dissertation, and the student is expected to defend her work. A majority of the committee members, including the committee chair and the outside member, must vote “Pass” in order for the student to pass the defense. The student may be required to make further revisions based on the comments made during the defense before submitting the final dissertation to the Graduate Division. The dissertation must conform to the Style and Policy Manual for Theses and Dissertations.

  • Upon the successful completion of the defense and the submission of the dissertation to the Graduate Division, the student will earn a PhD.